How can separated parents manage long distance access?

How can separated parents manage long distance access?

This is the first installment of a two-part series

We are living in an increasingly globalized world, so it is not surprising that families move – often long distances – more than they used to. While this can pose challenges when the parents live together – finding new schools for the children, setting up house in a new community, establishing new friendships, and so on – mobility for families that are separated can cause conflict and stress for everyone.

The issue of mobility can arise in two particular contexts:

  1. the parent (usually the mother) who is the primary caregiver wishes to move with the children in such a way that it would interfere with the other parent’s access to the kids, or
  2. the access parent (usually the father) wishes to move but wants to maintain his relationship with the children.

The reasons a parent might need or want to move are varied. Either parent might need to move for employment purposes: an involuntary transfer, a desired transfer, a new job, loss of a job where they are now living. Either parent may wish to move to accommodate a new partner’s situation. Perhaps a parent needs to move closer to their ageing parents to provide care. Most importantly, perhaps, women leaving abusive relationships may need or want to move to keep themselves and their children safe or to be closer to support from extended family.

Access parents are free to move as they wish; the family court cannot stop an adult from moving. The challenge in this situation is for the two parents – or the court — to come up with an access plan that is best for the children given the access parent’s new location.

Custodial parents, however, must obtain either consent from the access parent or a court order before they can move with their children.

The law

In Ontario, issues related to custody and access are determined by using the best interests of the child test as set out in the Children’s Law Reform Act. This test is also used when a parent applies to the court for permission to move with the children. It would be used if the access parent had moved and was trying to establish a new access regime to accommodate his move. Generally, courts will allow relocation if it is good for the children and is not an attempt by the custodial parent to interfere with the other parent’s access.

Some decisions appear to indicate that courts will permit a move if the relocation is good for the custodial parent; understanding that this can lead to positive outcomes for the children as well. This is particularly important in situations where women need to move for reasons of safety or to access familial support after leaving an abusive relationship.

Implications for the family

There are a number of obvious implications for a move that puts some distance between children and either of their parents.

  • In-person access is bound to become less frequent and regular.
  • It will be harder for the distant parent to stay involved in and informed about their child’s life. An access parent can’t drop in on a kid’s soccer game, for instance, or keep an eye on the child’s progress at school, if he lives across the country in the same way he can if he lives in town.
  • Both of these realities will lead almost inevitably to fewer and less intense emotional ties between the child and the distant parent.
  • Making long-distance access work in a meaningful way can have significant financial implications for the family.

The next installment looks at strategies for managing long distances.

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